By Anna Lothson
Oak Park Village President Anan Abu-Taleb will check off another campaign promise at the end of the month when he hosts his first community forum.
Abu-Taleb, who has stressed the importance of transparency and opening dialogue between the village and residents, will host a discussion at the Oak Park Public Library from 7-8:30 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 28. He will be joined by Village Trustee Bob Tucker to answer questions from the audience.
An announcement about the forum was sent out via email Thursday morning from a friend of the village president. The notice was not sent out through the village because the forum is hosted by Abu-Taleb and is designed to be an informal discussion.
The purpose is to allow people the opportunity to share their thoughts, concerns and ideas so that village leaders can better understand what's on the mind of taxpayers. Abu-Taleb has said from the start of his campaign that communication between residents and the village is often viewed as one-way, and he's hoping to change that public perception.
"It's really a listening session," Abu-Taleb said. "It's a much more informal way of hearing what the residents want to say. That way we can take the conversations to the board and keep those conversations moving forward."
Abu-Taleb said he's heard — prior to, during and after his campaign — that people are frustrated with how the village is run. His hope is that people realize it's time to ban together and get the conversations going.
"I want people to understand it takes all of us to make it work. It takes the community to be engaged. It takes the board members to listen. It takes us to be innovative. It takes us to think outside the box," Abu-Taleb said. "The idea is how to cultivate good ideas and learn how to focus on a couple of issue and how to move the town forward."
One factor that motivated Abu-Taleb to run for village president was his frustration watching from the outside as decisions were made by village officials. Now that he's on the inside, he hopes to set a new tone.
"I want [the forum] to be effective. I am going to try to make it a good medium for us to cultivate ideas," he said. "The message to get across is that we're here to serve the community and we're here to listen to what they have to say. … I'm counting on this session to be a really good tool to stay in touch with the community."
Tucker often spends time going door to door to reach out to residents to see if they have questions or concerns. This forum, however, will allow Oak Parkers to join in a more casual setting than village hall allows in order to share their thoughts.
"If you wait for people to come to village hall, you're not getting the full picture," Tucker said.
The secret to making these forums effective, he said, is "if Anan and I do a lot more listening than talking."
At village board meetings, there isn't much time beyond 3-minute public comments to the board. This forum will eliminate that barrier and increase the chance for dialogue with the village president and a trustee.
"This can be more of an exchange," Tucker stressed. But it also means finding a happy medium between letting residents share and keeping control of the forum. "We need to have some kind of structure — to not get off into the weeds. … I think it's going to be incumbent on us to maintain focus."
Tucker hopes residents bring whatever concerns they have to these forums, but he also would like to see residents address "big picture" items that relate to policy decisions since that is the primary purpose of the village board.
While Tucker will accompany the village president at this forum, Abu-Taleb hopes to bring in other trustees, members from another taxing body or possibly business leaders or members from an outside community to help keep the conversations going.
At this point, the forums are designed to be a town-hall-style meeting with no specific guidelines, but that could evolve as meetings progress. The next meeting will be held Oct. 8 at the Maze branch of the Oak Park Public Library.